Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Harvard entrepreneurs weave silk with science

5 min read

Students’ commercial venture captures grand prize in President’s Challenge

A business idea born in a Harvard classroom to improve the delivery of vaccines in developing countries has been selected as the grand prize winner of the Harvard University President’s Challenge for social entrepreneurship.

Vaxess Technologies, a Cambridge-based company founded by students from across Harvard, will receive $70,000 to support a plan to commercialize new technology that uses silk to stabilize routine vaccines and eliminate the need for refrigeration in transport and delivery.

“We thought about how to use silk for tackling the most unmet challenges in global health,” said Livio Valenti, a Harvard Kennedy School student. “We saw the opportunity to build a sustainable, profitable business while creating an important public good: increasing access to health for those who are most in need.”

Valenti met his President’s Challenge teammates last fall during the Harvard Business School course “Commercializing Science.” The team has been advancing the idea since that time and this spring entered the President’s Challenge, Harvard’s first University-wide student project competition focused on developing entrepreneurial solutions to some of the world’s most important social problems.

The challenge was sponsored by Harvard President Drew Faust and hosted by the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) to help students develop their ideas and create ventures of high social impact in five categories — clean water, personal health, empowered education, global health, and clean air — while in school.

“Vaxess Technologies is an inspiring example of the type of interdisciplinary collaboration that thrives at the Harvard Innovation Lab. By bringing together individuals with skills in business, government, law, science, and technology, the team has developed a promising approach to increase access to lifesaving vaccines in developing countries,” said Faust. “Their work and the work of the other winning teams demonstrates a growing commitment among students across the University to apply their knowledge in ways that make a positive difference in the world.”

In addition to the Vaxess team, SPOUTS of Water in Uganda, Revolving Fund Pharmacy in western Kenya and School Yourself were also named winners in the competition. As runners-up, each team will receive $10,000 to advance its project.

SPOUTS of Water is a team of Harvard undergraduates seeking to increase access to clean water in Uganda by creating a self-sustaining ceramic water filter factory. By producing ceramic filters in Uganda, the team can lower costs of the filters and increase social entrepreneurial opportunities in the country.

Revolving Fund Pharmacy is a team working with government health agencies to ensure reliable stocks of drugs at affordable prices in western Kenya. The team launched three pilot revolving-fund pharmacies in western Kenya last year. These pharmacies have served more than 17,000 patients who otherwise would have been forced to pay substantially higher prices for medicine at commercial pharmacies or go without it.

School Yourself, a team led by two physics graduate students, is creating interactive electronics textbooks in math and science for high school and college students. The team is producing books for a new digital media generation by utilizing a variety of learning methods, including audio, video, and touch-based interactive tools. The team developed its first book, “Trigonometry,” and is planning interactive books on calculus, mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and probability and statistics.

The Vaxess team aims to commercialize a technology developed by Tufts University Professors Fiorenzo Omenetto and David Kaplan. The technology involves extracting fibroin, a protein found in silk, to stabilize vaccines at temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius. By transporting and delivering vaccines on a thin filmstrip of silk-derived protein, the need for refrigeration is eliminated.

“We have an amazing technology and an opportunity to be a sustainable business that benefits global health and can help grow economies in South Asia,” said Michael Schrader, the company’s chief executive officer and 2012 graduate of Harvard Business School. “Through the President’s Challenge we’ve come to see ourselves as social entrepreneurs who can help save lives.”

Schrader, M.B.A. ’12, and Valenti are joined by Kathryn Kosuda, a former Harvard postdoctoral fellow in chemistry, and Patrick Ho, J.D. ’12.

This summer, the Vaxess team will receive space in the i-lab, two expert mentors, and full access to the resources of the lab through August, as they continue to develop and execute their plan.

The grand prize winner and runners-up were selected from 170 teams that submitted project ideas in March. Ten finalists, chosen by a committee of Harvard faculty and alumni, in April received a $5,000 grant to further their projects — along with space at the i-lab and expert mentorship to advance their ideas.

“The President’s Challenge has elevated the importance of social entrepreneurship on campus and inspired the engagement of a new crop of innovators,” and said Provost Alan M. Garber, who headed the judging committee. “We know Harvard is a seedbed for innovation. With this challenge, we have seen students’ inspired ideas take root, with the assistance of University resources, such as the i-lab itself, and experts and mentors in our academic community.”

Winners of the President’s Challenge meet with President Drew Faust (right). Michael Schrader (from left) and Kathryn Kosuda are part of Team Vaxess Technologies, a Cambridge-based company founded by students from across Harvard. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

“The i-lab is an innovation community fueled by the incredible ideas, energy, and optimism that these teams and others from across the University bring,” said Gordon Jones, director of the Harvard i-lab. “We want to support all campus innovators as they grow their ideas into thriving ventures.”

The judges, expert practitioners in the global issue areas, found four teams deserving recognition. Vaxess received a prize large enough to help launch it on the path to commercialization.

In addition to the President’s Challenge grand prize, the Vaxess team also won the Harvard Business School Business Plan Contest this year and is a finalist in MassChallenge’s annual $1 million global startup competition and accelerator program.